Norman Banks contemplates death and discipleship through Our Lady of Sorrows
‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven’. (Isaiah 7)
I have an image in my head of the Pietà of Michelangelo in St Peter’s in Rome, which is just to the right of the main doors as you enter. It is one of the first thing of beauty that the pilgrim encounters on entering the basilica. I can remember when you could walk around it and get up really close before it was sadly attacked and had to be separated from us by a glass screen. It is one of Michelangelo’s earliest masterpieces, he was only twenty two when he completed it, and to this day it remains something of a mystery how such a young artist could make the marble so flow and almost melt, as Mary holds her dead son in her arms. It is as if there are no longer any bones in Our Lord’s body as it lies limp and vulnerable for all to see. And Mary in her helplessness, protects the child of her womb, the child of her dreams, neither keeping him to herself nor offering him to the world, as it is as if the life in her has also flowed away with grief and anguish.
Several years ago, I accompanied a friend to a Commonwealth War cemetery to find the grave of her elder brother. No one from the family had ever been there in the sixty or so years since he had been laid to rest. It was a poignant and never to be forgotten moment, when among the white stone and the blue irises, we found the grave of her brother. Hearts were near to breaking as memories flooded back of the young man who had set out from home as a teenager, never to return. Little was said that day, but the next morning we made a visit to St Peter’s in Rome. On entering the Basilica she was immediately drawn to Michelangelo’s Pietà and lingered there a long, long time. Later she told me how it had affected her at a very deep and personal level. Her own mother had been much on her mind at the war cemetery, and she found herself comparing the experiences of both women in the terrible loss of their sons. Mary had at least held her dead son, Jesus, in her arms while her own mother had only a telegram, a fragment of paper to hold, on which was written a few words, words that had broken her heart.
Jesus’ heart was quite literally broken upon the Cross. God’s son, all-powerful, all-knowing had self-emptied himself of his divinity to share fully in our humanity, risking everything, even to death on a cross for love of us. And his heart, so full of love and compassion, had broken upon the tree. And in that moment Mary’s heart had broken too. All the hope and promise invested in her charismatic Son ended in a tortured, lifeless corpse. Mary who had been given the gift of all gifts, the privilege of bearing God’s Son, who had dandled him upon her knee, and watched him grow up, now experienced emptiness and heart-breaking loss.
As the Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis so wisely observed, as he pondered the image of the dead Jesus in the arms of his mother in Saint Peter’s, Rome:
I was lost, ill at ease here, until by chance
In a side chapel we found a woman mourning
Her son: all the lacrimae rerum flowed
To her gesture of grief, all life’s blood from his stone.
There is no gap or discord between the divine
And the human in that Pietà of Michaelangelo.
I too have spent many a few moments in the presence of that most poignant of sculptures and to my mind nowhere else has stone been rendered so fluid and liquid, no-where else has flowed from the hardest of materials such intense and poignant emotion.
The special day, Our Lady of Sorrows, is given us by Holy Church so that we might pause a little and reflect on Christian discipleship, learning from Mary’s own personal example and honestly measuring our own. Some churches and cathedrals, such as Norwich with its own chapel of Our Lady of Pity, even have places set aside to ponder the mystery of our redemption.
Christian discipleship is a risky business. The Scriptural imperative makes heavy demands on all of us. An event like a retreat or diocesan conference can be an opportunity to pause, reflect and respond afresh to the call of the Incarnate and Redeeming Lord. We need all the help we can muster from wherever it is offered. And a good resource, often under-valued and under-used in the Anglican tradition is a daily relationship with the Holy Family rather than one that is confined to the Christmas season.
And images such as Michelangelo’s Pieta do help. Because they can touch us at a deep level and express things inside of us that are hard to express. Our sculpture, more than words can ever do, can help expresses our deepest feelings and emotions as we struggle with the deep experiences of our human condition. Of death and life, of ugliness and beauty, of youth and feebleness, fullness and emptiness, success and failure, joy and pain, height and depth all that makes up the rollercoaster of emotions that is us. We need these signs, pointers, triggers, images, insights that help us in trying to make sense of it all, in our personal lives and in our Christian ministries.
And so, we end as we began with those words from Isaiah Seven: ‘Again, the Lord spoke to Ahaz. Ask for a sign of the Lord your God: Let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. And the sign: ‘Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel’.
May our Lady of Pity pray with us and ever point us to her Son. May we all find renewal as we commit ourselves again and again to journeying in faith with the Man of Sorrows, the Prince of Peace, our Redeeming and Resurrected Lord, Christ, our Saviour, brother and friend.
Adapted from an address given by Bishop Norman to the clergy of Norwich diocese last month.